Commentary

Did Columbia witness a grand finale?

Missouri's rally for a classic victory over rival Kansas felt like a Mizzou Arena goodbye

Originally Published: February 4, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Moments after notching one of the school's biggest wins in recent memory, Missouri coach Frank Haith walked into his team's locker room and delivered some sobering news.

Instead of hitting the popular clubs and nightspots with their fellow students, the Tigers would be celebrating Saturday's 74-71 victory over No. 8 Kansas in their rooms at a local hotel.

Haith said he wanted his players to be rested for Sunday's trip to Norman, Okla., where they'll take on the Sooners on Monday night. But that's not to say the coach didn't have other motives for sequestering the Tigers after they beat their archrival.

[+] EnlargeSteve Moore celebrates
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesMizzou Arena and the surrounding area were full of pure elation after Saturday night's win over KU.

"I can imagine," Haith said, "what Columbia is going to be like tonight."

From the stands at Mizzou Arena to the house gatherings on campus to the bars such as Shiloh and Harpo's downtown, there might not have been a crazier party in any college town Saturday night than the shindig that took place throughout Columbia.

It was a moment for all Tigers fans to savor.

Especially since they might never experience it again.

Along with being one of the best games in the 104-year history of the Border War -- Missouri trailed by eight points with just more than two minutes remaining before rallying -- the latest KU-Mizzou showdown might have been the last we'll see in Columbia.

Missouri announced this past fall that it's leaving the Big 12 for the SEC after this season. The Tigers have said they'd like to continue their series with the Jayhawks, which began in 1908, by playing KU in a nonconference game each season.

Kansas wants no part of it.

"It's not going to happen in the immediate future," KU coach Bill Self said. "It's not because I don't like Mizzou. It's just because that's the way it is right now."

Self, if you couldn't tell, is ticked. And it's not just him. Kansas' entire administration -- as well as those from other schools throughout the Big 12 -- was steaming mad when Missouri decided to leave the conference for the SEC. Just when the divided league finally appeared to be gaining some stability, the Tigers backed out of their commitment and, in doing so, put other schools in jeopardy.

Missouri's move almost caused the Big 12 to fold. Power schools such as Oklahoma and Texas would have been fine, but at places such as Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas State, there was a genuine fear of being forced into a non-BCS league.

Knowing that, it's understandable why Self and KU aren't exactly jumping at the chance to do Missouri a favor by keeping the Tigers on the schedule.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Ratliffe
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesThe men's basketball teams at Kansas and Missouri have battled it out 226 times on the hardwood.

But it's also wrong.

Rivalries are one of the best things about college sports, and there might not be a feud as intense as the one between Kansas and Missouri. Sure, there are some that have just as much history and tradition. North Carolina-Duke comes to mind. And no one can deny the passion and emotion involved in every Kentucky-Louisville battle.

But when it comes to pure hatred between two schools -- and even more so, two fan bases -- nothing in college basketball tops Missouri versus Kansas.

At times it's downright scary.

"You can't just sit here and say this is an ordinary game," Tigers guard Michael Dixon said, "because it's not."

The magnitude of the rivalry is felt best in Kansas City, where thousands of KU and MU alums spend an entire year bickering with each other and making up jokes and slogans demeaning each school.

Former Missouri coach Norm Stewart used to refuse to buy gasoline -- or anything, for that matter -- in Kansas. Don Fambrough, the late KU football coach, appeared in numerous documentaries using the word "hate" to describe his feelings for the Tigers.

Heck, just hours before Saturday's game, a Missouri fan at C.J.'s, a popular Columbia sports bar, scribbled on a napkin, handed it to the waitress and asked her to deliver it -- along with a shot of cheap tequila -- to a Kansas fan across the room.

The man took the shot and then looked down at the napkin as the rest of the room erupted in laughter.

"Drink it, [wussy]," it read.

First-year Missouri coach Haith experienced the rivalry for the first time Saturday. He hates to think his team's Feb. 25 game against the Jayhawks in Lawrence could be the last meeting ever between the two teams.

"It'd be a shame," Haith said. "Not just for our fans, but for everybody. It's a great game to have us play. Hopefully we can work something out."

That's not an option, according to Self.

At least not anytime soon.

"It's more than me involved," Self said. "You've got chancellors, you've got trustees, you've got ADs. It's more than just a basketball coach, although I've probably got the main call."

Ending the series won't hurt Kansas.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesDid Bill Self walk off the court for the final time in Columbia? The answer might be up to him.

Playing Missouri on a neutral court certainly wouldn't do anything for KU financially. The Jayhawks could schedule Mississippi Valley State at the Sprint Center in Kansas City and draw a sellout crowd. And if Kansas wanted to play a stronger opponent that would help its RPI, there are plenty of schools to choose from besides Missouri.

Still, it should be about more than that.

It should be about carrying on a tradition, it should about pride and it should be about continuing to provide environments such as the one a sellout crowd of 15,061 witnessed Saturday night.

"A memorable game, a classic," Haith said, adding that it was the most impressive game-day atmosphere he's ever experienced.

Self was asked whether he "felt sorry" for the fans who would never get to attend another Border War game.

"No," the coach said. "Missouri wanted this. So why should I feel bad? I don't feel bad for anybody. If [I] should feel bad for anybody, it's the players who won't get a chance to play in it.

"The fans, to me, don't drive the bus at all. Missouri wanted this. It's their prerogative. If it's better for them to be somewhere else, so be it."

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.